Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Behind the Scenes: Claretian Fatter Richard Todd's Nativity Collection Invites Us to See the God Who Is with Us, among Us, and for Us

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Behind the Scenes: Claretian Fatter Richard Todd's Nativity Collection Invites Us to See the God Who Is with Us, among Us, and for Us

Article excerpt

The first biography of St. Francis of Assisi, written by fellow friar Thomas of Celano, recounts an event in the Italian town of Greccio in 1223 that continues to influence the material culture of our Christmas festivities. According to Thomas, Francis wished to "enact the memory of that babe who was born in Bethlehem: to see as much as possible with my own bodily eyes the discomfort of his infant needs, how he lay in a manger, and how, with an ox and an ass standing by, he rested on hay." Francis described his idea to a friend, a nobleman named John.

That year, in the darkness of Christmas' first hours, the throng that assembled with "candles and torches... to light up that night whose shining star has enlightened every day and year" found Francis' vision realized: His friend had brought animals to a hay-filled manger. Francis read the gospel and preached. In the stylized language of the time, Thomas records that Francis would "lick his lips whenever he use[d] the expressions 'Jesus' or 'babe from Bethlehem,' tasting the word on his happy palate and savoring the sweetness of the word." Later a person only identified as "virtuous" had a "vision" of Francis approaching a "little child lying lifeless in the manger... and waken[ing] him from a deep sleep."

Celano's implication is clear: Francis revived believers by recalling, not the power of Christ's divinity, but what Celano describes as Francis' understanding of the "humility of the Incarnation." Contrary to the courtly manners of the time, the heavenly King set aside his nobility to become vulnerable and helpless. In his reenacting of the physical setting of the birth of Jesus, Francis sought to share his amazement at God's manner of appearance. Francis' imaginative insight must have moved the people of Greccio; his way of marking the nativity of the Christ child became a tradition that continues to this day. Though people still organize live Nativity scenes with people and animals, our churches and homes most often contain statuary tableaux to symbolize the miracle of the Word-made-flesh.

Claretian Father Richard Todd collected numerous representations of Jesus' nativity. Now housed in the Claretian archives in Chicago, his assorted creches are modestly scaled, made of common materials, and intended for domestic and personal use. These diminutive, inexpensive objects could also be packed away in a tourist's suitcase and distributed among family and friends as travel mementos.

The tiny covered nativity scenes gathered in Guatemala were probably the latter. Rather than being housed in some version of a stable, the miniature figures are attached to and enclosed (as if for safe transport) within forms resembling a gourd and a covered dish. Both bear the country's name, heightening the likelihood of their being a souvenir. The crudely modeled statuettes have their own charm, but the probability that these would be treasured for generations is slim.

From Bolivia Todd acquired a length of bamboo that had been sliced open vertically to create six display areas for miniscule scenes from the life of Christ. Tiny hinges ensure that the stem can be closed (perhaps to protect the vignettes); a string offers a hanging option. Five tiny characters narrate the Savior's birth in the upper left niche. By skewing the perspective, its creator made the most of the limited space and accidentally mimics some forms of modern art: The baby Jesus appears mounted on a wall beneath a bird-like star that could double as the Holy Spirit.

Todd's collection, primarily crafted in Central and South America, has a distinctive feel that reminds those of us from other ethnic backgrounds how the exotic, the different, can catch our attention. …

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